Hiring a car is a great way to see Iceland's natural wonders, but how do you avoid the most elementary mistakes? Every year, the Icelandic media carries stories about tourists who've been caught out by the challenging driving conditions. Mostly this just results in an embarrassing picture on the Morgunbladid or Iceland Review websites, but it can involve an expensive encounter with on-the-spot fines from the police (Lögreglan) or a life-threatening situation.
You can't drive through the middle
Maps of Iceland DO show roads going through the middle. However, when you're planning your trip you need to know that these roads are made of gravel (no tarmac) and therefore only open for a few weeks in summer. The date varies and is announced on the very useful English-language Vegagerðin website. They also have fords - look for the >> marks across the roads on maps. No car insurance covers damage in this situation. If you want to go through the middle of Iceland, consider an organised tour or a bus instead. There's more information on highland roads here.
How long does it take to drive round?
It is possible to drive round the whole island on Route 1 (the ring road) in about six days, but this would not allow you much time to stop and look at anything. It would also be exhausting for a single driver. Unless you're visiting in summer when it's light all night, it would also mean driving in the dark. Ten days would allow you to go all the way round at a more relaxed pace, and fourteen would be ideal. Arguably, many people would get more enjoyment out of a less ambitious trip in five days. For example along the south shore to see Thingvellir, the geysirs and waterfalls (known as the Golden Circle) along with the magnificent glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón. Alternatively, you could also look at a trip to glorious Snæfellsnes (Iceland in a nutshell) in five days. Both of these options would give you some time in Reykjavik and a dip in the Blue Lagoon (you need to book) as it's located between the capital and the airport. Once you have a route in mind, take a look at the roadside webcams to see what to expect in terms of road conditions.
How to get the car hire price lower
Hiring a car is a potentially large chunk of your travel budget on a trip to Iceland so shop around for a good deal. The prices are generally lower until mid-June and after mid-September. It can pay to choose a hire company carefully as even some of the best-known ones appear to offer cheap rates but then pile on the extras or try to charge you for damage you didn't do. Local companies, including Reykjavik Rentacar, offer competitive rates and have a network of local contacts around the country. It goes without saying that you should check the vehicle very carefully before driving away, including drying the front and back windscreens as hail and rain can camouflage damage to the glass.
Take the speed limits seriously
The joy of the open road and the breathtaking scenery can be very distracting but it pays to keep an eye on the speedo as Icelandic police do not hesitate to issue on the spot fines for speeding. They carry credit card payment machines so the fines are instant. Don't even think about driving when you've had a drink. The speed limits are detailed here.
Animals on the road
If you're driving in summer, you're likely to encounter sheep, horses, reindeer or even nesting birds on the road.Slow down and wait for them to move well away. Take the opportunity to look at the scenery. The ewes are mostly sensible but new mothers can be jumpy and unpredictable, and lambs even more so. If you hit an animal, make a note of the ear tag number and go and seek advice at the nearest farm. Many farmers are insured for the loss of livestock.
Watch out for the weather
Wind can close a road. Along the south shore in particular, it can hurl sand and gravel at your vehicle with enough force to take the paint off and break the windows. Generally, the roads are closed well before it gets this bad, but some tourists manage to miss the signs (look out for the work Lokað - which means closed or locked) and end up in danger and with a huge bill for repairs. Keep an eye on the weather website (generally wind speeds under 12m/s do not pose any problems). Snow and ice can also close roads of course. Keep up to date with road closures using the Vegagerðin website. It can also pay to stop at petrol stations (top up if your tank is half full or less) and ask for up-to-date local information from staff and other drivers you meet - especially the Vegagerðin workers themselves (their vehicles carry the yellow Vegagerðin badge).
Digital signboards (like the example above) are the driver's best friend in Iceland. They are positioned just before high passes and other areas where wind and weather can affect driving conditions. If the road is closed, they will have the word Lokað on them. If so, stop and seek an alternative route. The letters on the left hand side indicate the wind direction (SA is south easterly, for example). The telephone numbers on the sign will give you access to information on road conditions (1777) and weather (1779).
Road signs you need to take notice of
In addition to the digital signboard, the road signs give warnings of hazards you may not have seen before and it pays to know what they mean.
Left: Blind summit Centre: Road impassable Right: Animals on the road
If in any doubt about a sign, slow down. More specifically:
Blind summit: You won't be able to see oncoming traffic so slow down and keep to your side of the road (right). Some tourists manage to forget which side of the road they should be on - this can result in a head-on collision.
Malbik endar: You're approaching the end of the paved section of the road and are about to run out of tarmac. The road ahead will be unpaved gravel and there may be loose stones. Slow right down.
Falling rocks: This can be more of hazard in spring and summer as rocks are loosened during the thaw. It's relatively unlikely that one will fall onto your car or onto you, but it's not uncommon to round a bend on a narrow road and find a large rock in the middle of your lane. Some of these rocks are tiny; some are the size of a car. Slow down.
Narrow bridge: Many of Iceland's older bridges carry a single lane only. They're gradually being replaced, but until then, slow down and let oncoming traffic through first if they got there before you. Watch out for potholes and other changes in the road surface just before and after the bridge itself.
Roadworks: Both the gravel roads and tarmac roads are impossible to repair except in spring or summer, so you're likely to encounter roadworks. This is probably the moment when your windscreen glass is most likely to be in danger from a small stone flung up by another vehicle. Slow right down.
There are more pictures of road signs here, and a handy printable version here.
Use a map not the sat nav
Most car hire companies will give you a basic map, but the ones produced by the Icelandic equivalent of the Ordnance Survey are far better and safer. A good quality up-to-date road atlas will be worth the price if you're planning to explore the whole country. You can also buy individual sheets if you're only planning to visit part of the country. In general, roads that have an F before their number are suitable only for 4x4 vehicles - possibly because there are fords or rough terrain ahead - for which you will need greater ground clearance than a normal car has. Watch out for fords when planning your route.
Before you go
Familiarise yourself with the weather and roads agency websites. Both work really well on smartphones. (You can often access free wifi at petrol stations and in car parks near hotels, libraries and other public buildings.) Download and print the PDFs from the roads agency website.
The emergency number in Iceland is 112 (as for all European countries). The 112 app is worth downloading too as it makes calling for help easier and may be able to summon help even if you have no signal.
The season may make a difference to your plans. Unless you like driving in the dark, bear in mind that in winter the days are very short - in November, December and January for example you might only have four hours of daylight (it can seem even less in bad weather). In winter, you're also likely to be driving on studded tyres which help give you extra traction on an icy road. In stark contrast, the midnight sun in summer can make it possible to drive all through the night as it doesn't get dark, so watch out for tiredness. Spring and autumn can be good times for a tour round the island, although bear in mind that winter can keep a grip (and close roads) - especially in the Westfjords and the north - well into May.
http://www.drive.is/ includes a safety video about hazards you may encounter and advice on what to do.
http://www.safetravel.is/ is the official source for safe adventure in Iceland and has a wealth of information about driving, hiking, glaciers, whale watching and a range of other outdoor activities.
Icelandic meteorological service (includes an aurora forecast)
Roads agency (Vegagerðin) is the best source to check for road closures. You may need to replan your route in the case of road closures so double check this every morning during your trip.
Information for cyclists
Reykjavik city guide